How Can I Earn the Respect of Non-Compliant Adolescents?



Adolescents with substance abuse or mental health diagnoses can be difficult to reach. Some clients use their behaviors to avoid treatment to such an extent that they are considered “non-compliant.” As a professional, such behaviors are usually a cry for help, but how do you reach a client who does not seem to want help? How can you earn the respect of non-compliant adolescents?

The Behavior Is Not the Problem

How often are adolescents labeled as “bad,” “troubled,” “at-risk,” or more? Too often adolescents have learned that negative attention is still attention. Creating behaviors to deflect from their actual pain and struggles allows them to live down to others’ expectations of them.

The behaviors themselves are not the problem, however. Substance abuse and mental health diagnoses are not even the actual problem, they are simply diagnoses of the symptoms. Their actual problems are often emotional pain from physical or emotional trauma, serious problems with family, and more. The more distracting the behaviors, the easier it is to simply consider them “difficult” or “non-compliant.” Digging deeper, they are all still human beings, and their behaviors are standing in the way of getting help to heal from their emotional wounds.

Listen and Observe to Find the Whys

Behaviors are like puzzles. When you are willing to watch and listen carefully, slowly but surely you can find the whys, or the motivations for their behaviors. Often the adolescents themselves have no idea why they are acting out, using substances, or are unwilling to comply with any form of treatment. This makes it even more important as a professional to listen and observe closely.

For most adolescents, there is no easy answer, no “aha!” moment where all of their behaviors disappear. Finding answers is more like peeling the layers of an onion, and requires incredible patience. Some adolescents will even increase their behaviors as you get closer to their truths. While this can be very discouraging and frustrating as a professional, remembering why you chose this path and the success stories you have can help you to maintain motivation.

Offer Adolescents Reasonable Choices

Simply telling an adolescent “no” is as effective as telling a toddler “no,” except adolescents throw bigger tantrums. Learning to offer consistent, reasonable choices to adolescents takes away the opportunities for distractions, but also gives them responsibility for their choices. Sure, they may only have a choice between something that is not fun and something that is really not fun, but you will gain respect when you hold them accountable for their choices.

Developing respect and compliance is great in a small group setting, where adolescents can see that others making good choices are rewarded for those choices. Perhaps their initial response is still to act out or not be willing to comply, but eventually, they will want to receive the rewards or privileges for making good choices. Even if their motivation is only the benefit of the good choice, they start making good choices a habit, and eventually will learn that making good choices and receiving positive attention is better than negative attention.

Giving Adolescents Control Without Giving up Control

There is a false notion that offering an adolescent control of their own choices means giving up control as a clinician or professional. This concept is actually the opposite of true. As you give an adolescent the opportunity to make their own choices and also to accept the consequences of their choices, you gain more respect from them.

Respect is far more powerful than the “control” that so many adults seek to impose on young people. An adolescent’s respect empowers both the youth and the adults who are offering them guidance to move past the behaviors, find the source of their pain, and help them to heal and move forward with greater success in life. This is how you can give young people control without giving up your own control.

Respect Is a Two-Way Street

As professionals, we sometimes forget that in asking for respect, we need to give respect. Whether you are working with a child, an adolescent, or a young adult, age does not preclude the necessity of offering the same respect that you are asking for. When you are able to effectively demonstrate your respect for your clients, they are more likely to treat you with respect in return.

Non-compliance should not be confused for a lack of respect, either. Remember that an adolescent’s behaviors are about them, not you. When you can respect them, observe and listen to them, offer them choices and allow them to consistently receive the same consequences for their choices, you are more likely to be able to reach them, too.

Earning the respect of adolescents with serious behavior issues or who are deemed “non-compliant” can seem like a battle, but it is really more about patience and respect. Remembering that the behavior is not the problem and not taking things personally will allow you to gradually earn respect and hopefully be able to help your client heal. The Sustain Recovery program is built around the concept that the substance abuse and mental health diagnoses are not the problem but rather the adolescent’s maladaptive solutions to the real problem. Our extended care program offers the opportunity for them to not only have more success in treatment but also be able to transition back into their homes and communities. Our staff are committed to providing evidence-based practices and the structure and opportunities for young people to become accountable. Call us today at (949) 407-9052 to find out if our program can be the solution to your child or client’s needs.